Lee Britt settled into a restaurant table here on a recent Saturday night, looking up to see a barrel-chested, bald man approaching.
"Ed Norris!" he said, standing up to extend his hand. "I enjoy your show."
"Keep listening," said the city's former police commissioner and ex-state police superintendent, flashing a smile and continuing into the Owl Bar, a century-old haunt in central Baltimore.
Britt, 29, a third-year law student and aspiring prosecutor, turned to his tablemates and reviewed pieces of the Norris story. It's a compelling one: Crime-busting police chief rolls in from New York City in 2000. . . . Reminds people of TV mobster Tony Soprano. . . . Cuts crime. . . . Gets caught tapping a police fund to buy things like Victoria's Secret lingerie for women who weren't his wife. . . . Is sent to federal prison in Florida.
And now: He's back in Baltimore, as the city's newest talk radio host.
"If Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy can do it," Britt asked, "why not Ed Norris?"
The question draws strikingly different answers, and it is one that could sway at least some votes in next year's gubernatorial race. Norris has held key posts for two of the principal players: Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and a possible Democratic candidate, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.
Norris has been kind to Ehrlich thus far but has taken several shots at O'Malley's administration. That's notable, because O'Malley has staked his political future on his abilities as a crime fighter.
Norris's critics, including some close to O'Malley, would like to see the guy just go away. In their view, he embarrassed the city, bailed out when times got tough and is now slickly remaking himself into a celebrity ex-con.
"Live from cellblock 105.7," a show intro states. Another: "When the paddy wagon's rockin', don't bother knockin'." Off the air, Norris must complete 500 hours of community service and remains under court-supervised probation.
Neither O'Malley nor his inner circle, leery of drawing attention to Norris, will talk about him publicly. They hope that the sometimes frivolous nature of his show -- it follows Howard Stern weekday mornings on WHFS-FM -- will dilute any influence he has.
To some Baltimore street cops, however, Norris remains a hero. His supporters feel he reduced crime, only to fall victim to city hall politics and a headline-hungry federal prosecutor -- one eventually reprimanded after concerns were raised over his handling of public corruption cases.
"You're a classy guy," a caller recently told Norris on the air, "and they keep screwing with you."
The police department has stumbled with gun and drug problems and can be a tough place for street-level cops, at least according to Norris's show. He told listeners he had canceled a "Welcome home, Eddie" party, fearing that cops would get in trouble for showing up.
Four days later, as Norris broadcast from Baltimore's Inner Harbor, police sirens could be heard. It was a show of support, listeners were told.
"That was guys showing support for Ed Norris," said Lt. Frederick V. Roussey, head of the city's police union.
Matt Jablow, a police department spokesman, said that he didn't know whether that was true and that it would be impossible to find out. "I have nothing to say about that show," he added.
Thomas M. DiBiagio, the U.S. attorney who prosecuted Norris and has since gone into private practice, said he hasn't listened to the show. But there wasn't anything political or unfair about the case, he said, which dealt simply with the fact that Norris spent $20,000 in city funds "on himself and his girlfriends."
Batman and Robin
Norris can be appealing on the air. His Brooklyn accent lends credence. He also can shift comfortably from discussing gay marriage to pro football to Jordanian terrorists in the course of a program.
Norris, who is 5-foot-9, sports a shaved head, open-collared dress shirts, jeans and hip, square-toed, dark-brown shoes. The manicures are out. Now, he says, his checking account recently dipped to $544. He hopes the new job will springboard him to a new career, perhaps in security.
The show's best moments are the least predictable. Norris told listeners that the drug war is stupid. That kids and cops are killed. That cops also are pulled away from solving homicides or finding terrorists. That upper-income users still get their fixes.
When a co-host raised the subject of how people get themselves in trouble with captive animals, Norris quickly recalled an incident in Brooklyn's Prospect Park Zoo.
"Some kids jumped into the polar bear cage," he said. "We had 'snipas' come in and kill the bears. By the time we got to the children, they looked like chicken carcasses."
He has taken several swipes at the city's management of crime issues, asserting that a gun buyback program would attract mostly old guns from law-abiding people, he said, not weapons from murderers. He likened it to a "face-lift for a cancer patient."
Norris's view is that callers are more interested in hurricanes and the Baltimore Ravens than an election more than a year way. He has said he'll have more to say, in time.
"Right now, I don't want to gratuitously punch someone in the head," he said.
For Norris, sparring is more than verbal. His father, a butcher by trade who joined the New York police, taught him how to box. Norris played college football at the University of Rochester in New York, then returned home to join the force himself. He rose quickly, eventually assembling a specialized detective squad that cracked unsolved homicides at a clip that drew national attention.
Baltimore had its own hard-charging official on the rise. O'Malley, a then-36-year-old City Council member with his own rock band, was swept into the mayor's office in 1999 on a promise to make one of the nation's most violent cities safe again.
He brought Norris -- by then a deputy commissioner in New York -- to Baltimore, and later made him police chief.
Norris quickly garnered a following with his blunt style. At one community meeting, a tall, burly man complained that two police officers drew their guns on him. "That wasn't right, I didn't have a gun," he said.
"If I rolled up on you, I'd have pulled my gun, too," said Norris, who recalls that O'Malley, seated nearby, winced.
The man paused. "My wife said the same thing," he finally said.
"We're only human," Norris said. "I want to go home at the end of the night, too."
Norris redeployed officers to the streets and made them accountable to closely watched crime statistics, drawing from a playbook used by police reformers in New York. The annual homicide toll, which hovered above 300 in the 1990s, fell to 253 by 2002.
He and O'Malley talked daily about crime and sometimes dined together. Some in Baltimore called them Batman and Robin.
Norris showed other, more surprising sides as well. When researchers from the University of Virginia came to study his management techniques, Norris talked about writing eulogies for slain officers. He said he'd take comfort in his favorite lines from Shakespeare's "Henry V":
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,
For he today that shed his blood with me
Shall be my brother, be he ne'er so vile.
'Flip on "SpongeBob" '
Money and women did him in.
Norris started dipping into an obscure police department fund, used by predecessors for equipment and training. Much of the approximately $180,000 he withdrew was for legitimate police business.
But he could not account or fully explain a series of dinners, clothing purchases, hotel rooms and Baltimore Orioles tickets -- and eventually agreed to reimburse the city $6,000. A rift with O'Malley's office opened. Norris felt second-guessed by the mayor's aides. They felt they should know where he was in the middle of the day.
Over the next 18 months, Norris's life plummeted. He quit suddenly in December 2002, stunning the city by taking a job running Ehrlich's state police force. Federal agents, prompted by stories in the Baltimore Sun and a subsequent city audit, found women, bodyguards and a restaurant manager who were prepared to testify about how Norris spent city funds. He pleaded guilty to fraud and filing false tax forms, and served a six-month prison term in Florida.
That was the last that many Baltimoreans figured they'd hear from Norris. But this year, the two twentysomething radio personalities on WHFS, Big O and Dukes, began calling him at his home in Tampa.
He was out of prison by then, under house arrest and living with his 5-year-old son and his wife, who'd remained with him through it all. The more Norris was on the air, the funnier and more insightful he seemed -- wearing a court-issued ankle bracelet all the while. Knowing he was coming to Baltimore anyway to serve his community service sentence, Norris accepted a beefed-up role on the show, now called "Ed Norris, With Big O and Dukes."
Norris's favorite topic is terrorism, though it remains to be seen whether he can keep the callers focused on such a serious matter.
"It's one of the most important subjects that affects the United States, sir," Norris told a caller who wanted him to change subjects. "If you want to do something else, watch cartoons, what can I tell ya? Flip on 'SpongeBob.' And close your windows when the gas is seeping through."
Outside the studio, Norris's legal woes continue. Thomas Tobin, a former Baltimore cop who served as Norris's driver, has quietly sued him in Maryland District Court in Baltimore for $18,000. According to court documents, as the spending scandal broke, Tobin delivered a series of cash envelopes to city officials to bridge an accounting gap. Behind the scenes, Tobin alleges, Norris agreed to pay him back. Norris denies the claims.
In other circles, the former chief still has plenty of fans.
Back at the Owl Bar on the recent Saturday, Norris took a seat at the bar and ordered a bourbon and soda. He watched the Ravens game on the TV to prep for Monday's callers.
Rachel Grau, a 34-year-old hair-stylist, approached and put her hand on his shoulder. "Baltimore's not safe since you left," she said, gushing.
Walking out, he passed Gary Shivers, who helps manages a condominium tower above the bar.
Shivers told Norris it was a shame his welcome-back party was scrubbed.
"The party should have gone," Shivers said.
"I had to protect the guys," Norris replied.
"You're the greatest," Shivers responded. "Don't worry about the politics."